Dest, Missouri native Sargent part of US men's soccer team prepping for dizzying stretch

Ronald Blum, AP Sports Writer
Bremen's Josh Sargent drives the ball past Bayern's Lucas Hernandez, on the ground, during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich in Bremen, Germany, Saturday, March 13, 2021. (Carmen Jaspersen/Pool via AP)

Sergiño Dest’s calendar has a dizzying and body-crushing jam of obligations next fall as a result of soccer’s congested schedule caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

An American defender who scored his first two goals for Barcelona last weekend, he faces the start of a stretch on Aug. 28-29 that has within a 16-week span through Dec. 11-12 the possibility of eight World Cup qualifiers, 13 La Liga matches and six Champions League fixtures. The gauntlet includes three trans-Atlantic round trips, two flights from the U.S. to Central America, one from the U.S. to the Caribbean and three journeys within Europe and/or the United Kingdom.

“The balance has to be right,” he said Tuesday at U.S. training camp in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, ahead of Thursday’s exhibition against Jamaica. “In your free time, you have to really relax yourself, do something without any specific thing of football. And I just relax with my friends. Sometimes I play PlayStation. Sometimes I’m watching movies or my family is with me.”

Dest's muscles will be on extra time, part of a young generation of headed by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Josh Sargent.

After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase, the U.S. starts qualifying Sept. 2, most likely at Trinidad or Tobago, where the Americans were eliminated with a 2-1 defeat in October 2017. They are home Sept. 5, probably against Canada or Haiti, then play Sept. 8 at Honduras.

Europe-based players return to their clubs, then come back for a home qualifier against Jamaica on Oct. 7, a road game three days later likely at Panama or Guatemala, and a home match on Oct. 13 against Costa Rica.

Next up is a Nov. 12 home game against Mexico and a Nov. 16 road game at Jamaica. Qualifying then takes a break until three games from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 and the final three from March 24-30. The World Cup in Qatar starts Nov. 21, 2022, forcing a stoppage in European league seasons.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter is using these friendlies and the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer to prepare depth.

“It’s definitely not going to be easy, but I think we have a good group of guys that can do it,” Sargent said. “We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to switch players and who’s going to play in which games. If we stay focused and keep working hard, it’ll be OK.”

Sargent, a 21-year-old from O’Fallon, Missouri, debuted for Werder Bremen in December 2018 and scored two league goals in his first league season and four in his second. He has five in 25 Bundesliga matches this season and seven goals overall; starting in late February he scored in consecutive league matches against Eintracht Frankurt, Cologne and Arminia Bielefeld.

Sargent is emerging as the first-choice striker for the U.S. team, a replacement for 31-year-old Jozy Altidore, who often has been injured in recent years. Sargent's club hot streak followed a stretch in which he failed to score in 10 straight league matches and had one goal in 14.

“I think if you ask any player besides Messi or Ronaldo, everybody deals with it. It’s the life as a footballer,” Sargent said. “You have times you’re doing really well, times you’re not doing so well, and definitely hard at times, of course. But I think it’s important to have a good group around you to help you stay focused and that if you keep working hard, I think things will work out for the better. Obviously I was struggling a little bit with scoring goals. I was very happy about myself with how I was performing. But at the end of the day, as a striker, you’re going to be judged on how many goals you score. So of course, any goal I can score is going to boost my confidence. And, yeah, I feel like I’m in a good place right now.”

The 20-year-old Dest chose to play for the U.S. over the Netherlands. Both in the Netherlands to a Surinamese-American father and a Dutch mother, he became a regular for Ajax in 2019-20 and transferred to Barcelona last fall. He is part of a group of Americans that have broken through at the world’s top clubs, joining Pulisic at Chelsea and Weston McKennie at Juventus. Dest scored twice Sunday in a 6-1 win over Real Sociedad, playing in an advanced wing role instead of outside back. Lionel Messi also had a pair of goals.

“I feel like I’ve developed a lot in Barcelona,” Dest said. “I’m playing with the best of the game. And so every training, if you look at him and you just see what he does, it’s just unbelievable. So I try to take a couple of things from him, I think it’s it’s really good for my development. And yeah, I think I’m at the right place to get my full potential.”